This morning is the last in our series of songs requested by the congregation: Music and God sightings: theology hidden in our midst. In this series, we have heard about Amazing Grace from Pastor Shirley, Breathe from Jamie Lindtner. I have shared from One Day, I want to Live, and now, Precious Lord, take my hand. These songs of our faith give us context and understanding of the faith journeys of others. Music pervades our souls in ways that words cannot, and these songs become the primer of our faith. As we hum a few bars, the words find their way into our minds and shape our understandings of God. What does Precious Lord, take my hand, tell us about God?
Thomas Dorsey tells the story. In 1932, he was in high demand as a musician. Having begun as a jazz player, his life was changed after suffering a serious illness. He was newly married to Netti Harper, and she was expecting their first child. Hesitant to leave her in her last month of pregnancy, Dorsey ultimately held fast to his commitment as a music director and featured socialist at a revival in St. Louis . The crowd called him back again and again. It was not until he sat down that he received the Western Union telegram that his wife had died in childbirth, and he was the father of a son. Grief and joy together overwhelmed him. Later that night, his son, Thomas Andrew, Junior died as well. Dorsey later wrote: “I buried Nettie and our little boy together, in the same casket. Then I fell apart. For days I closeted myself. I felt that God had done me an injustice. I didn’t want to serve Him anymore or write gospel songs. I just wanted to go back to that jazz world I once knew so well. . . But still I was lost in grief. Everyone was kind to me, especially a friend, Professor Frye, who seemed to know what I needed. On the following Saturday evening he took me up to Malone’s Poro College, a neighborhood music school. It was quiet; the late evening sun crept through the curtained windows. I sat down at the piano, and my hands began to browse over the keys.1″ From there the lyrics poured out and he adapted a familiar tune.
The song found loud resonance and wide play. Pews of church goers could relate to Dorsey’s pain and reliance on Jesus. The son was well-loved by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He often had the song sung at his rallies. It was the day that he was assassinated as well as at his state funeral. King knew the power of leaning on the promises of Jesus even when the people of God were dead-set against him, even when it felt as though he was on his own.
Can you hear the pain of grief and the power of resurrection in this song? You and I often know the pain of grief. We know the unexplained death of a young person who died much too young, and we find ourselves with more questions than we have answers. We know the pointed the grief of a parent or a child, a spouse of a sibling, and we wonder how will we ever live again. When will it settle enough to love our joys and celebrate our days without the sting of grief? We know the daily grief of the death of a dream- wanting to live in our home and having to move to the one that our children have decided on for us, giving up the keys and license to the car, watching the world get smaller and smaller. We know the pain of grief, but do we remember the power of resurrection?
What shall separate us from the love of Christ? This is the question that Paul asked rhetorically as he wrote to the Romans? He did not ask it idly and speculatively. As he asked, Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? The disciples in Rome knew that he had experienced hardship and distress; that he knew persecution and famine was not so far gone; his peril and the possibility of the sword was not far from him. He had gone through it and still the love of Christ was with him and through him.
And we could ask it today (and many do). Is there anything that can separate us from the love of Christ? When we feel as though our days are filled with the perils and the pains of Job, we ask have we been separated from the love of God? We have not. As we recount those in our lives afflicted with pain and disease, as we know suffering and anxiety, as we walk the valley of the shadow of death, we lean on the same certainty that held the apostle Paul on the hope and faith of Jesus Christ. We lean on the wisdom that there is nothing – not pain or death, not humiliation or rejection, not financial struggles or healthcare fiascos, not grief or embarrassment – Nothing can separate us from the love of God!
It is an invitation for us as our children return to school. As nerves walk alongside excitement as kindergarteners get on the bus for the first time, we remember the invitation for the Lord to hold their previous small hands. As proud elementary students walk into a year riddled with learning and challenges that have not yet shown themselves, we pray for God to walk with them. As middle schoolers and high schooler saunter beyond school learning into social situations that will shape their days, we pray for the Lord to lead them beyond temptation and bring them home safely. As so many of our colleges students returned to school or went to college for the first time, we pray that the foundations that they learned here in this place give them the words to pray for the Lord to take their hands.
The prophet Isaiah reminded the people of God, do not be afraid – God is always with you. You can depend on God. No matter how twisted the path or difficult the climb, you can depend on God. No matter how dark the hour or lonely the moment, you can depend on God. No matter how devastating the news or unfathomable the future with hope, you can depend on God.
Thomas Dorsey went on to become the father of Gospel music: Peace in the Valley, It’s a Highway to heaven, and hundreds more were his. He wrote and produced; he sung and directed. He married Kathryn, 8 years after the death of his beloved Nettie and young son. He went on write a little known song to Kathryn on the occasion of their 17th wedding anniversary, “In the scheme of things”. Twenty-five years after the tragic death and loss that shook his faith foundation and threatened to take his life, he leaned hard on the promises of God that nothing can separate him from God and that the Lord will always have a firm grip on him.
Where today do you need to find a quiet moment and a reflective corner to turn your dependence back to Jesus? Where do you need to hear the reassurance that God will never leave you or forsake you? Where do you need to sing Precious Lord, take my hand. Lead me on, help me stand. I am tired, I am weak, I’m lone. And let the promises of God teach you theology. I have a friend who always talks about the difference between the theology we believe in the light of the day and that which grips you at 3 am, when you can’t sleep and the world is falling down around your head. May the earnest simplicity of this call for God coupled remind us again in the light of day and in the darkest hours, that we can depend on God and that God will guide my feet, hold my hand. Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home.
This is the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, thanks be to God, Amen.
Old Testament Lessons: Isaiah 41:10-14
Do not fear, for I am with you,
do not be afraid, for I am your God;
I will strengthen you, I will help you,
I will uphold you with my victorious right hand.
Yes, all who are incensed against you
shall be ashamed and disgraced;
those who strive against you
shall be as nothing and shall perish.
You shall seek those who contend with you,
but you shall not find them;
those who war against you
shall be as nothing at all.
For I, the Lord your God,
hold your right hand;
it is I who say to you, “Do not fear,
I will help you.”
Do not fear, you worm Jacob,
you insect Israel!
I will help you, says the Lord;
your Redeemer is the Holy One of Israel.
New Testament Lessons: Romans 8:35-39
Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Meditations For Your Week
Sunday, August 28~ Saturday, September 3
Sunday: “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?” Romans 8:35. When do you know God’s presence nearest?
Monday: “As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’” Romans 8:36. Where are you struggling and need God?
Tuesday: “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” Romans 8:37. In the end, God is victorious. Where is God calling you to be a conqueror through God’s love?
Wednesday: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 8:38. Nothing separates us from God. Prayerfully contemplate the joy of this mystery.
Thursday: “Don’t panic. I’m with you. There’s no need to fear for I’m your God. I’ll give you strength. I’ll help you. I’ll hold you steady, keep a firm grip on you.” Isaiah 41: 10, Message. With a new chapter or beginning, we might be tempted to respond in fear and anxiety, God calls us lean on God’s generous gifts of strength, help, and steadfastness.
Friday: “When you go out looking for your old adversaries you won’t find them— Not a trace of your old enemies, not even a memory.” Isaiah 41: 12. How are you leaning on God’s promises?
Saturday: “That’s right. Because I, your God, have a firm grip on you and I’m not letting go. I’m telling you, ‘Don’t panic. I’m right here to help you.’” Isaiah 41: 13. God has never left you. Turn to God in the midst of your struggles.